Royal Ballet triple bill – review

Royal Opera House, London

It's been a strange week for the Royal Ballet's Marianela Nuñez. On Tuesday she made her debut in the title role of Christopher Wheeldon's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, and looked iller at ease than I've ever seen her. As Alice, she is required to be on stage for the best part of two hours, mostly as an observer, and while Nuñez did her best, assuming every conceivable posture of amazement, amusement and indignation in response to the events unfolding around her, the narrative stubbornly refused to come to life. Núñez's engagement with her roles is always passionate, and while this can illuminate a great choreographic text – such as her Giselle or Swan Lake – it instantly exposes a hollow one. Unlike lower voltage performers, you cast her at your peril.

And so it was last Wednesday night, in Alastair Marriott's Sensorium, whose circuitry is much too fragile to sustain the Nuñez power surge. Set to Debussy, and costumed in muted shades of Andrex blue and Clinique green, the work is essentially an exercise in pattern making. Perhaps, like Leanne Benjamin or Rupert Pennefather, Nuñez should maintain a measured blankness throughout – Pennefather has a kind of genius for all-purpose noblesse – but instead you can see her intelligence at work, restlessly scouring the choreography for significance and sending frustrated splinters of energy ricocheting around the stage. "What is a sensorium, anyway?" my guest asked as the curtain fell, and I hazarded that it might be something like the perfume hall at Harvey Nichols, perhaps with Ladurée macaroons arranged on cake stands. According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, however, it's "the seat of sensation in the brain of man".

Sensorium followed Frederick Ashton's Rhapsody, a thrilling opener if there ever was one. The half-hour piece, for a principal couple and a corps of six men and six women, was originally set on Mikhail Baryshnikov, and requires a leading dancer of exceptional virtuosity. In Steven McRae, the Royal Ballet has just such a dancer. Fine-drawn and fleet of foot, he negotiates the ferociously hard choreography with insouciant ease and a precisely calibrated edge of irony. We discover him, golden and Apollonian, against a cloudy Aegean sunset, where he launches into a taut-sprung solo to Rachmaninov's Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. The corps dance, and Alina Cojocaru enters to a shimmer of strings. As their duet builds, she rises and falls in a series of fluttering lifts.

Rhapsody is a perfect example of how Ashton took classical steps and refashioned them with a stylishly oblique twist. The choreographic detailing is precise – the turn of a wrist, the oppositional torsion of a neck and shoulder – and the bravura steps spectacular. For McRae, these include cross-stage slides and a trio of "death wish" revoltades, all delivered with supreme Olympian cool. Cojocaru, meanwhile, responds to the music's elegiac undertow with bittersweet joy, and at times interpolates grace notes of her own, replacing the ecstatic hand gestures in the pas de deux with idiosyncratic flicks, as if banishing moths or unhappy memories. The corps, male and female, dance beautifully, and none more so than Emma Maguire, whose lyricism and serene Ashtonian poise tell us that here, for the duration of this suspended moment, all is fine, all is well.

The evening closes with David Bintley's Still Life at the Penguin Cafe, whose anthropomorphic charms are still intact, if beginning to wear a little thin. Maguire is a poignant Great Auk, Zenaida Yanowsky a sophisticated Longhorn Ram, whiling the cocktail hour away in the arms of the ever suave Gary Avis, and Iohna Loots was surely born to portray the Hog-Nosed Skunk Flea. Extinction will probably catch up with all of them before too long, but that's art for you. Constantly evolving.

Contributor

Luke Jennings

The GuardianTramp

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